Social Media & Intermediary Liability: Missing the Forest for the Trees?

Recent events have once again brought into focus the question of imposing legal liability on online intermediaries and, particularly social media companies. In the United States, Twitter’s decision to ‘flag’ President Trump’s tweet disparaging vote-by-mail procedures as inaccurate prompted the President to issue an executive order re-considering the qualified immunity granted to intermediaries (here). In India, Twitter voluntarily and independently ‘disabled’ two tweets by advocate Prashanth Bhushan upon the initiation of contempt proceedings against the lawyer (here). This, while India is currently in the process of amending its rules under the Information Technology Act (“IT Act”) regulating online intermediaries (the “Intermediary Guidelines”).

The need to shield online intermediaries from liability to protect freedom of expression on the internet is well established. India’s new regulation seeking to make intermediaries monitor and take-down content is a step back in this respect. But the proposed guidelines aside, in this post I argue that a regulatory focus on intermediary liability by the government ignores several larger structural issues with speech on the internet (especially on social media websites) and potentially hampers more robust and multi-faceted regulatory approaches. I begin by briefly setting out India’s intermediary regime (both existing and proposed) and the need to shield intermediaries from immunity. I then attempt to sketch out the role of large social media companies in structuring speech on the internet and how an undue focus on intermediary liability further empowers already powerful actors at the cost of internet consumers and free speech. Without going so far as ‘breaking up big tech’, I explore possibility regulatory measures that can counteract the power of social media companies over users’ speech.

Intermediary Immunity Grossly Simplified

Given the decentralised nature of the internet, online intermediaries have long been targets for legal liability for allegedly unlawful speech on the internet. Traditionally a “tort law principle of secondary liability for third party action” is applied against intermediaries. Simply put, a website may be sued for hosting unlawful content even though the website itself did not create or post the content (secondary liability), the unlawful content actually having been created and posted by an anonymous web-user (third party action or content).

Government’s however, quickly recognised that exposing intermediaries to this liability may make them extremely cautious and cause them to start deleting all third-party content that carries even a slight risk of legal liability. Not ideal for online business or free speech. Therefore, governments provided “immunity” or “safe harbour” to intermediaries except in narrowly defined situations. For example, Section 79 of the IT Act provides online intermediaries legal immunity for unlawful third party content if: (i) the content is merely temporarily stored or transmitted on the site; or (ii) if the intermediary takes down the content upon receiving “actual knowledge” of the unlawful content or upon being notified by the Government; or (iii) compliance with the Intermediary Guidelines more generally.

In an exceedingly rare moment of clarity, the Indian Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal held that online intermediaries could not be tasked with determining when content was legal or not, and “actual knowledge” meant a court order directing the take-down of unlawful content. In other words, intermediaries would only ever be subject to legal liability if a court of law directed them to take-down content and they still refused to do so. (Note: this makes Twitter’s “disabling” of Prashanth Bhushan’s tweets an entirely voluntary act as there existed no court order directing the take-down. What it says about Justice Arun Mishra asking Twitter why it had not taken down the tweet is best left to the reader’s imagination.)

Proposed Amendments

As the intermediary’s “safe harbour” or shield against liability for hosting third party content is dependent on compliance with the Intermediary Guidelines, the content of these guidelines is incredibly important. As the Software Freedom Law Centre has reported (here), India’s new Intermediary Guidelines make continued immunity contingent on several problematic conditions, namely: (i) mandatory upload filters; (ii) traceability; (iii) a local incorporation requirement; and (iv) a twenty-four hour take-down requirement. These requirements are undeniably problematic, cumulatively restricting, and chilling speech. For example, an upload filter would force intermediaries themselves to judge the legality of content before it is published (flying directly in the face of the reasoning in Shreya Singhal). Even worse, upload filters shift the burden on the speaker to justify why their speech is not unlawful, rather than requiring a person offended by the speech or the government to justify why the speech should be taken down. This effectively makes restricting speech the norm and free speech an exception to that norm.

The proposed amendments to the Intermediary Guidelines warrant alarm bells being raised and interested readers should go through SFLC’s report. However, the focus of this post is to explain why the government’s focus on intermediary liability itself is misguided.  

The Bigger Picture

The renewed political impetus to regulate intermediaries is a result of the new dual role of large internet companies, particularly social media companies. As Jack Balkin notes, large social media companies not only make available speech for our consumption but also curate the speech that we consume. For example, not only does Twitter allows a user to see the speech of millions of other users, but by selectively ranking, editing, and removing content Twitter also determines what speech a user sees and does not see. This second role of curation cannot be performed without the intermediary (e.g. Twitter) having its own substantive view on what speech is good speech and what speech is bad speech.

Social media companies often argue that they are content neutral, or that speech is tailored based on a user’s own interests. However, this is simply not bourne out in practice. For example, when President Trump stated that vote-by-mail ballots were unsafe, Twitter ‘flagged’ it as potentially misleading, but Facebook carried the President’s statement as is. Simply put, Twitter’s substantive view on speech in the context of elections was different from Facebook’s. Therefore, despite granting intermediaries immunity, the reality is that large intermediaries voluntarily perform an editorial (or curating) function that determine what speech should be on their platform on what speech should not. These are often referred to as a platform’s “community guidelines”.

This voluntary curating function coupled with the massive market share of existing social media companies raises a significant issue. With the internet presently structured around just two or three social media companies, the probability that an individual citizen’s substantive view on good and bad speech will diverge from the social media company’s view on speech is extremely high. The most obvious manifestation is when a website takes down what a user may see as legal content, or alternatively refuses to take down what a user may see as illegal content. To be clear, it is not desirable to have content taken down merely because it is objectionable to another internet user (this is why Shreya Singhal imposed the court order requirement). However, when the user’s dissatisfaction with the social media site’s view of good and bad speech is examined in light of the user’s inability to choose another social media site or participate in the framing of the “community guidelines”, the curating role of social media companies absent any legal regulation becomes problematic.

Another way to look at this issue is that large social media companies have effectively created bottlenecks for speech on the internet, of which they are the sole unregulated gatekeepers. Gatekeeper functions are performed by most publishers for example, a magazine may refuse to publish an author’s article because of the magazine’s political views. However, the essential role played by social media companies in facilitating speech on the internet and the tiny number of companies involved creates a huge asymmetry of power between internet users and social media companies where an internet user cannot migrate to another social media platform in the same way an author can find another magazine to publish in. If a user wishes to participate in speech on the internet, they must subject themselves to the social media company’s views on speech in the form of arbitrarily enforced community guidelines. For example, the German Federal Court recently ruled that Facebook users were faced with a “false choice” between handing over huge amounts of private data to Facebook or not using the company’s ubiquitous social media service (here). In other words, internet users cannot ‘choose not to use Facebook’ because of its centrality to speech on the internet. The same dependence is also true of downstream companies and people who rely on social media companies for certain services (e.g. app developers for Apple’s App Store or YouTube’s content creators). This imbalance of power and the often arbitrary actions of intermediaries themselves has created the impetus for government’s to step in and seek to impose new rules that would make the voluntary editorial function carried out by intermediaries more acceptable to the citizen’s (or government’s) substantive view on speech.

Lastly, a user’s legal recourse against intermediaries is extremely limited. For example, in 2019 Twitter disabled senior lawyer Sanjay Hegde’s Twitter account over: (i) the use of August Landmesser’s photo defying the Nazi salute; and (ii) retweeting a poem by a CPI (Marxist-Leninist) politician – incidentally the original tweet was not taken down by Twitter. Hegde took Twitter to court alleging a violation of his free speech rights and a breach of Twitter’s own community guidelines. Twitter argued that as a private entity it was not obligated to guarantee Article 19(1)(a) rights. While there may exist a case for a contractual breach of the community guidelines, the episode highlights how even where internet users have the means and know-how to challenge an intermediary’s voluntary curating function, the law is ill suited to ensure recourse.  

Meaningful Regulation

Recall that intermediaries have always been soft targets for regulating speech online because they represent entities that the law can identify, regulate, and penalise in the otherwise decentralised world of the internet. India’s proposed new Intermediary Guidelines seek to make intermediaries even easier to identify and regulate (a local incorporation requirement) and opens intermediaries up to legal liability if their view of speech does not comport to the government-imposed norm (upload filters). The problem with this approach from a free speech perspective is that using legal liability as a threat to force intermediaries to take greater responsibility for online expression will likely lead to the systematic over-removal of legitimate speech. For example, Twitter did not wait for a court order to remove Prashant Bhushan’s tweets, as it was legally entitled to do under the Shreya Singhal ruling. Irrespective of whether an intermediary’s community guidelines are lax or strict, the spectre of legal liability forces intermediaries to be extremely cautious and remove speech that may not be unlawful. Worse, the high cost of upload filters and local incorporation requirements automatically privilege large intermediaries such Facebook and Google over smaller companies. Therefore, a regulatory approach focussed on intermediary liability not only fails to address the power imbalance between online intermediaries and their users, it further empowers existing intermediaries and incentivises them to be more aggressive in their voluntary curating function.

Understanding the problem created user-dependence on social media companies to speak on the internet, but also recognising that weakening “safe harbour” for intermediary immunities may not be a cogent response, government regulation must be more creative. “Breaking up big data” has become an increasingly common demand amongst certain politicians. Without going into the merits of a government mandated break-up of companies such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon, less drastic steps may be possible. It is also important to recognise that the harms created by large online intermediaries are not identical. For example, Facebook and Twitter may act as bottlenecks for free speech on the internet. Amazon has been accused of using its dual-role as a producer and a sales-platform to discriminate against sales-partners. Apple has been accused of discriminating against app-developers prior to apps can be listed on the App Store (the only way developers can supply their apps to users). Charges have been levied against Google for rigging its page-rank system to ensure that competitor services do not appear in Google’s ubiquitous search results. These diverse harms will likely require individuated solutions beyond a blanket breakup of large internet companies (previous breakups of large telecommunications and steel companies have resulted in re-consolidation within a decade or two).

A regulatory response must first be able to identify where speech may be being stifled. Recognising that users are unable to migrate to alternative social media networks even when an intermediary takes down their speech without a court order, an European Digital Rights (“ERD”) position paper explicitly recommends “bottleneck power” (the ability to preserve and lock-in a user-base) as a competition law metric that online platforms should be judged by (here). This can help regulators understand when users are locked in to online speech eco-systems, resulting in online intermediaries having too much power.

To break down this power, both ERD and Balkin advocate “interoperability” as a vital step that can restore significant power to internet users. A simple form of interoperability would allow users to access social media platforms from a variety of alternate services. For example, a user can access Twitter from a third-party app (not the Twitter app). This third-party app can display tweets purely chronologically, or use a different algorithm than Twitter, allowing the user to escape Twitter’s speech curating function to a limited extent (Twitter’s ranking of tweets) and choose a third-party app that the user believes to be the most beneficial.

A more robust form of interoperability would insist on a set of common internet protocols that allow users to directly communicate between different internet platforms (e.g. a Facebook user could directly message a Twitter user). This may sound unthinkable at present, but such common standards exist for email. An internet user is free to choose between a variety of email services but is ensured that they can still mail users on other email services. As ERD notes, if I migrate from Yahoo to Gmail, I do not automatically lose all my friends, followers, or contacts, thus the threshold to migrate is low and user-dependence and lock in is mitigated. By allowing users to migrate between different social media companies easily, social media companies are incentivised to provide better services and users are free to choose a social media company best reflects their substantive view of speech and are not beholden to any one service’s “community guidelines”. For example, if I found my speech constantly falling foul of Facebook “community guidelines”, I would migrate to social media X but still be able to reach my erstwhile “friends”. This would also apply in reverse, if I felt that Facebook was not censoring content enough and I wanted an even more curated feed, I would migrate to social media Y with stricter “community guidelines”. In the long term, this would ensure more social media companies and continued interoperability (today would you leave your email service for a new service that does not allow you to send emails to users with Gmail or Yahoo or Hotmail accounts?).

It is important to note that internet companies have systematically resisted moves towards such forms of interoperability. For example, Twitter limits the number of users a third-party Twitter app can host. Neither Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube provide meaningful application programming interfaces (APIs) that would allow for a service that collates your Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube feeds. Apple openly uses a “walled garden” approach to push sales of additional Apple-only compatible hardware.

Lastly, governments should look to set up specialised tribunals or regulators that improve recourse for internet users against the actions of intermediaries. Rather than a user having to approach regular courts to allege a contractual breach of community guidelines by the intermediary, specialised tribunals offering quick and meaningful dispute resolution will also incentivise better intermediary behaviour. The online nature of these disputes is also an opportunity to potentially examine online-only dispute settlement mechanisms such as virtual tribunals or Lok Adalats.   

Conclusion

This post stemmed from two excellent articles written by Jack Balkin (here) and Lina Khan and David Pozen (here). Balkin’s initial approach was to suggest imposing fiduciary obligations on intermediaries to ensure intermediaries do not act arbitrarily or like “con-men” with respect to user data. As Khan and Pozen note, an approach that centres around the regulation of intermediaries ignores the larger realities of the internet eco-system within which intermediaries operate today. Large internet companies already owe fiduciary obligations to stockholders to maximise value, which is often done by a business model reliant on the spread of divisive, inflammatory content and eroding user privacy. For example, the New York Times reported on an individual spreading political disinformation purely to capitalise on Google ad-revenue (here). When we recognise that these social media companies also form the cornerstone of modern public discourse, the magnitude of the problem is put into perspective. As Khan and Pozen conclude, the business model matters, as do economic realities.

A regulatory approach and response that focuses entirely on whether intermediaries should be held liable for third party content is unlikely to address the harms stemming from the extreme user dependence on large social media sites. Recognising the key role social media companies play in curating speech on the internet and the outsized market share these companies possess – there is bound to be a mismatch between a user’s substantive view of speech and those available on the internet resulting in the stifling of potentially lawful speech. Recognising that users are increasingly locked in to a handful of social media eco-systems, regulation of speech on the internet should work towards dismantling the gatekeeping power of large social media companies and putting power back in the hands of individual speakers to choose platforms of their choice and reclaim public discourse.


The author is grateful to Shweta Reddy from the Centre for Internet and Society for her inputs on this post.

“Fake News” and the Constitution

As millions of migrant workers made their way from India’s cities back to their villages after the government announced a nation-wide ‘lockdown’, the Solicitor General of India informed the Supreme Court that the exodus was caused by “some fake/misleading news and social media” and sought a direction to prevent “fake and inaccurate reporting” (here). In Maharashtra, an order was passed under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure prohibiting the dissemination of information on social media that was ‘incorrect or distorted facts’ (here). And Kashmir’s new ‘Media Policy – 2020’ states that “Any fake news or any news inciting hatred or disturbing communal harmony shall be proceeded against under IPC/Cyber Laws” (here).

Phrases such as “incitement” and even “disturbing communal harmony” have a long and well-documented use in Indian law (for better or for worse). However, the above narrated incidents demonstrate a recent trend by the Indian government to try and restrict speech on the ground that it constitutes “fake news” (I use speech in the broadest possible term to include the press, broadcasting and online media). India is not alone, countries such as Singapore and Indonesia have introduced full-blown legislation to restrict “fake news”. In this post, I begin by noting that the term “fake news” suffers from several definitional hurdles that point to deeper structural problems in our media eco-system. I argue that there are several very good reasons why we may want to restrict some forms of misinformation. However, any restriction imposed on speech must comply with the constitutional safeguards set out in Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(2). Examining “fake news” restrictions against the concepts of vagueness, overbreadth and a disproportionate chilling effect, I argue that restrictions on “fake new” that are narrowly tailored enough to be constitutionally compliant are unlikely to be effective in combatting the social harms we associate with “fake news”. I conclude by advocating a heterogeneous approach to combat the issue of “fake news”.

A few caveats. First, because India does not yet have a “fake news” legislation, my analysis is necessarily in the abstract (even the Kashmir policy ultimately relies on provisions of the Indian Penal Code for prosecution). This post seeks to evaluate the consequences of restricting “fake news” as a category of speech and I accept that any restrictions imposed by the government may be more nuanced than a blanket restriction on “fake news” (although the signs are not promising). Second, there is a separate but cognate conversation to be had about the role of internet intermediaries in facilitating and restricting “fake news” that is worthy of a separate post and I have not addressed the issue here for the sake of brevity.

Protected Speech and its Limits

Before beginning it pays to recap a few important aspects of free speech regulation in India. While Article 19(1)(a) guarantees citizens the freedom of speech, Article 19(2) allows for “reasonable restrictions” in the interests of inter alia: (i) the sovereignty/integrity of India; (ii) the security of the State; (iii) public order; (iv) decency or morality; (v) defamation; or (vi) incitement to an offence. As we can see, speech in India can be restricted because of its consequences, that it may lead to violence, but also because of the speech’s content – that the meaning conveyed is deemed legally objectionable. The State evidently has an interest in restricting speech that directly leads to violence. However, in the case of obscenity laws or defamation, speech is restricted because of value judgements by the State. Obscene speech does not lead to violence, but the State believes that it leads to an erosion of public morality.

Any restriction on speech must have a proximate connection with a specific head set out in Article 19(2). The government cannot restrict speech merely in the ‘public interest’, or because it is ‘false’, neither of which are heads under Article 19(2). Therefore, if the government wanted to restrict “fake news” it would need to prove that “fake news” either caused harm because of its content (defamation, decency or morality) or that it was inciteful leading to violent consequences (public order, incitement to an offence). Lastly, there is a long line of cases noting that the ‘proximate connection’ means a real and imminent risk of harm arising from the speech and not vague speculation about possible future harms.

Defining “Fake News”

“Fake news” is a term bandied about very loosely nowadays which has resulted in everybody thinking there is consensus about the phenomenon being referred to, but very little certainty as to what content is “fake news” and what content is not. The term has been applied to satire, propaganda, biased reporting, sponsored or promoted content, factually incorrect reporting, entirely fabricated stories, or simply inconvenient truths. The term does not clarify whether it applies to private communications (WhatsApp chats), social media (Facebook), online media (an online-only news organisation) or even traditional print media. In a post Donald Trump era, the term also necessarily carries a derogatory component that is often independent of an objective evaluation of the actual content (Habgood-Coote refers to this as an ‘epistemic slur’). The flip side of this issue is that there is very little certainty about who a “journalist” is today, with citizens receiving news from a wide variety of sources.

The term “fake news” therefore refers to a heterogeneous field of content, some of which have a diverse set of underlying problems. This becomes immediately apparent when we look at the words we used to use to describe this type of content before we began using the umbrella term “fake news”. Inaccurate, false, misleading, biased, sensationalist, propaganda and advertisement are just some of the words to describe what we now call “fake news”. Using an exact term to identify the issue with a piece of content allows us to create targeted and meaningful solutions. For example, the type of regulation needed to regulate factual inaccuracies in a newspaper article is very different from the type of regulation needed to ensure paid advertising can be distinguished from news stories. We need to stop using the umbrella term of “fake news” and begin accurately labelling the specific harms caused by the speech in question.

From a free speech perspective, it is important to note that the distinction between “fake” and “real” is a politically contested one. The more polarised a society, the less likely it is that different parts of a population experience the same political reality. This makes legally regulating the fake/real distinction problematic, as seen in Singapore where the government sent orders to Facebook to “correct” individual posts. The posts alleged that the Singaporean government had illegally influenced investment companies, suppressed whistle-blowers, and rigged elections (here). This is emblematic of how governments can use a restriction on “fake news” to restrict a broad range of criticism and plenty has been written about the Indian government’s efforts to reshape the narrative in Kashmir (here). At the end of the day, governments place a pre-eminent value on self-preservation coupled with a bias towards their own political ideologies, and the ability to determine what is “fake” and what is “real” goes a long way towards silencing opposing viewpoints and homogenising political thought.

That said, there exist more nuanced definitions of “fake news” and a blanket ban on “fake news” is unlikely. For example, the European Union (in non-binding documents) doesn’t use the term “fake news” at all, rather it defines “disinformation” as ‘verifiably false or misleading information which cumulatively is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public and may cause public harm intended as threats to democratic, political and policymaking process as well as public goods’. By requiring an evaluation of the intent behind the creation of the information and a (rather soft) the requirement for actual harm the European definitions seems to be less of a burden on free speech. But this also means it is less effective at curbing the spread of misinformation. Users may spread disinformation legitimately believing it to be true, and how does one assess when a ‘policymaking’ process is harmed? It also does not regulate other harms we associate with “fake news” such as media bias. It is worth keeping these considerations in mind as we consider the harms arising from “fake news” or “disinformation”.

The Argument for Regulating “Fake News”

There are two primary reasons why a government may legitimately wish to regulate “fake news”. First, misinformation or fabricated stories may directly result in violence, either through information about specific individuals or more broadly stoking pre-existing fissures in society (e.g. race or religion). India has already witnessed a string of violent incidents that investigative authorities have noted were either caused by or aggravated due to the spread of disinformation. Second, disinformation can interfere with the electoral process by misinforming voters about candidates’ political opinions, track records, previous misdeeds, and positions on important social issues. An uninformed voter is unable to vote for a candidate that best represents their interests, directly undermining the legitimacy of the electoral process and the resultant government. To make matters worse, disinformation is likely to disproportionately effect voters who do not have access to multiple sources of information (the poor and marginalised).

As Ari Waldman notes, in the long run disinformation can fundamentally alter public discourse by creating false equivalencies, particularly where political leaders spread disinformation. If a factually incorrect statement by a political leader must be accorded equal weight as the truth in the name of journalistic neutrality, a society may waste valuable public time and energy debating false stories (e.g. see the amount of time the U.S. media spends merely correcting President Trump’s demonstrably false statements). Over time, sustained bias or propagandistic reporting can harden political bias, causing citizens to select media sources that merely confirm their existing notions of true or false, further increasing polarisation.

To be clear, traditional justifications for the freedom of speech such as Mill’s argument that more debate over ideas ultimately lead to the truth (culminating with Justice Holmes famous ‘marketplace of ideas’ analogy) are not strictly applicable to “fake news”. To argue that we should produce even more “true news” (counter-speech) rather than restrict “fake news” is problematic for two reasons. First, it doesn’t work and inaction can lead to the type of cyclical harms referred to above (a recent MIT study found that false stories diffused further and faster than true stories on Twitter in all categories of information  (here)– in other words, the truth does not rise to the top).

More fundamentally, Mill’s theory and subsequent adaptations are premised on having more ideas and counter-ideas, not facts and “counter-facts”. Facts and opinions are very distinct in their nature but also share an important relationship when it comes to free speech. While there may be an infinite number of ideas or opinions about a fact, a fact is singular and objective. For example, whether there are Chinese soldiers inside what India considers its territory is a question of fact. The soldiers are either there, or they are not. What India should about the Chinese soldiers and its own territorial claims is a question of opinion with many possible answers. However, it is also important to acknowledge that “factual truth informs political thought” – in other words people’s opinions have a factual basis. For people to have meaningful opinions about the world, and for those opinions to interact with each other in meaningful debate, there must be an agreed upon factual basis. It makes sense not to restrict ideas and opinions because they open new avenues of thinking, however an agreed upon baseline of facts is fundamental to an informed debate about ideas. Returning to our example, how can we debate whether the government’s foreign policy was a success if we do not know whether the Chinese soldiers were in Indian territory or not? Therefore, a freedom of speech justification created to ensure free debate may actually favour some restrictions on “fake news” by ensuring a common baseline of facts.

Legally Restricting “Fake News”

Recall that under the constitutional scheme, all speech is free other than that which the government restricts because it is has a proximate nexus with the specific harms identified by the heads of Article 19(2) (public order, defamation etc.). Although the Indian Supreme Court has never explicitly dealt with the question of whether factually false statements are protected under the Constitution (the U.S. Supreme Court in Alvarez explicitly held such statements to be protected under the U.S. Constitution) factual inaccuracy is not a ground to restrict free speech under Article 19(2). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that if the government wanted to restrict speech it classified as “fake news”, it would have to argue that the speech was either defamatory, would lead to a breach of public order, or amounted to an incitement to an offence. What amounts to a valid restriction under these heads of 19(2) have been widely discussed elsewhere on this blog and I do not intend to rehash them. Rather I argue that restrictions on “fake news” are likely to fall foul of two principles: (i) vagueness, (ii) overbreadth leading to a disproportionate chilling effect on speech.

Vagueness: A law is unconstitutionally vague if ordinary citizens cannot determine whether they have broken it or not. Imagine a law which restricted citizens from “honking too much” at traffic signals. How does a citizen determine how much is “too much”? The law does not provide a fair warning to citizens as to whether their actions will break the law or not. Vague laws also grant officials a large amount of discretion as to when a law has been breached or not (would you trust a police-officer to tell you when you are honking too much?).

Restricting speech on the ground that it is “fake news” would likely lead to widespread confusion about what kind of speech the government was restricting. Recall the broad range of content that comes under the banner of “fake news” – from satire to inaccurate reporting to fabricated stories. More nuanced definitions (such as that proposed by the European Union) may remedy this issue but are still unwieldy. The line between advocacy and deception is often imperceptible, with compelling arguments often cherry-picking or manipulating facts. Further, terms such as ‘threats to the democratic, political and policymaking process’ are so wide that they substantially increase the risk of the government selectively prosecuting speakers with unfavourable opinions. Kashmir is a living example of where free speech has been left entirely to the whims of the executive, and it has led to the denial of internet services, the arbitrary blocking of websites, and the persecution of journalists.

Overbreadth: A restriction on speech is “overbroad” when it restricts both the speech that the government can legally restrict (e.g. hate speech) but also goes on to restrict speech other speech that is constitutionally protected (e.g. dissent). In Shreya Singhal, the Supreme Court was called to adjudicate upon the constitutionality of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which criminalised speech that was “grossly offensive”. The court noted that any citizen may advocate a view on governmental, literary, or scientific issues that may be unpalatable or even “grossly offensive” to other citizens. While some speech may be justifiably restricted, not all speech that was “grossly offensive” rose to the level where there was an imminent risk to public order or incitement. This meant that, by using the term “grossly offensive” Section 66A also ultimately criminalised constitutionally protected speech. The court observed:

Section 66-A purports to authorise the imposition of restrictions on the fundamental right contained in Article 19(1)(a) in language wide enough to cover restrictions both within and without the limits of constitutionally permissible legislative action […] It must therefore, be held to be wholly unconstitutional and void.”

The term “grossly offensive” was so broad that it restricted some speech justifiably, but also other speech unjustifiably. In Shreya Singhal the court distinguished between discussion, advocacy, and incitement. It held that the first two formed the heart of constitutionally protected speech while inciteful speech may be legally restricted. Simply put, restrictions on speech that restrict inciteful speech and are broad enough to go on and restrict discussion and advocacy are unconstitutional.

If the government were to restrict “fake news” (a very broad category of speech), it would also likely restrict a vast amount of constitutionally protected discussion and advocacy. At its bluntest, satire, parody, and anti-government reporting could fall under the ambit of “fake news”. More critically, a restriction on “fake news” would create the risk of liability for journalists and media houses, that a single inaccurate factual assertion could lead to censorship or punitive action. For example, Kashmir’s new ‘Media Policy’ flat out dis-empanels journalists for publishing “fake news”. A news-report that exposed governmental overreach but contained a minor factual error or irregularity could be termed “fake news”, robbing readers of valuable information and robbing journalists of their livelihood.

Where restrictions on speech are vague, overbroad, and punitive, they create a chilling effect on speakers. Content creators, journalists, publishers, media houses and ordinary citizen are likely to ‘err on the side of caution’ and simply not speak rather than run the risk of their speech being adjudged as a crime. To avoid this chilling effect, the law of defamation incorporates what is known as the “actual malice” standard. It states that unless a speaker’s statement evidences ‘actual malice or a reckless disregard for the truth’, the statement cannot be considered defamatory. The logic is simple, with the vast amount of free-flowing debate in society a few inaccuracies are bound to crop up. Rather than aggressively prosecute these minor inaccuracies and frighten all other speakers, the law states that where these inaccuracies do not possess any ‘actual malice’ they are exempt from prosecution. In Rajagopal the Indian Supreme Court adopted the ‘actual malice’ standard in civil defamation cases and recently, the Madras High Court has adopted the standard in the context of criminal defamation (here). Defamation requires an alleged injury to reputation, something not all “fake news” is likely to cause. However, the rationale that minor inaccuracies should not lead to punitive action which has a chilling effect on speech should certainly apply, and any restrictions on “fake news” should incorporate the ‘actual malice’ standard.

The Government and the Truth

One last point may be made before concluding. In Alvarez, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a statute which punished persons for falsely claiming to have been awarded military medals. In striking down the law, the court noted that that it was wary of the government claiming ‘broad censorial power to regulate falsehoods’, the mere existence of which would have a chilling effect on speech. To be clear, the government does regulate falsehoods in certain cases, most notably in the areas of defamation, consumer protection and fraud, and perjury. This is accepted because, the restrictions on speech are limited to the contexts where they are especially likely to cause harm and are actionable only where they cause actual harm to identifiable individuals. A restriction on “fake news” is much broader. A good news eco-system is more akin to a public good like a clean environment and “fake news” often attacks issues more than people – where it does attack people, the remedy of defamation is always open. Similarly, where the “fake news” is inciteful and capable of causing violence, India already possess a host of anachronistic laws that can be used to restrict and prosecute speech capable of causing violence. Without this proximate connection to real threats, regulating “fake news” creates the spectre of a government truth, something any democracy should be wary off.

Conclusion

The phenomenon often branded as “fake news” can lead to a diverse set of harms ranging from violence, damage to the electoral system and increased political polarisation. However, when examined in light of India’s freedom of speech jurisprudence, restricting “fake news” is constitutionally fraught. Above all, it is important to remember that the government cannot restrict speech merely because it is “false” or “inaccurate”. Briefly, any restriction on “fake news” would need to (i) show some real, imminent and identifiable harm; (ii) the harm would need to be a constitutionally recognised ground to restrict free speech under Article 19(2); (iii) consider questions of medium, time and impact of the “fake news”; (iv) incorporate the ‘actual malice’ standard; and (vi) be the least restrictive measure at the government’s disposal. This is not to say that it is impossible to draft legislation regulating “fake new” (several countries have already done it). There may be real value in pursuing narrow restrictions to reduce the effects of active disinformation campaigns during especially sensitive times (e.g. the run-up to elections). However, the phenomena of “fake news” rarely appears in such convenient forms and speech restrictions that are constitutionally compliant are unlikely to address the other diverse and systemic harms that “fake news” causes.

I began by noting that “fake news” is an amalgam term that houses several underlying issues we associate with our media-ecosystem. Understanding the underlying issues can lead to targeted solutions that bolster media literacy amongst the population and reduce the economic and political incentives associated with fabricated or propagandistic stories. Examples include ensuring a competitive media industry, disclosures requirements on social media sites about promoted content, investment in a truly independent state broadcaster, media literacy education in schools, and ultimately targeted legal interventions where constitutionally compliant speech restrictions may be meaningfully enforced. Merely sounding alarm bells at the rise of “fake news” opens the door to restrictions on speech and government censorship.

This post was largely in response to Kashmir’s Media Policy, which along with the Solicitor General’s statements represent a worrying trend by the government to adopt the clumsy but incredibly dangerous fake/real distinction to assert a dominant, government controlled narrative. In the future, I am sure there will arise more concrete examples that lend themselves to more detailed critique. The government’s position has long been that speech in Kashmir rejects the paradigm of the Indian State itself, representing a unique threat to the integrity of India. However, where the government seeks to preserve power through a stranglehold on truth itself, we have to ask ourselves whether the means employed to preserve the State have overridden what the State once stood for.

Coronavirus and the Constitution – XX: Parliamentary Accountability

We have already discussed on this blog how the government’s measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak at both the state and union levels have bypassed legislative accountability (here). In this post, I want to expand the discussion on legislative accountability by exploring three points: (1) the legislature’s role in placing temporal limits on the executive’s emergency powers; (2) how involving the legislature incentivises policy scrutiny and increases transparency; and (3) understanding whether Indian legislatures could have continued to function. I use the term ‘parliamentary’ accountability, but the argument is equally applicable to legislative assemblies in the states. The goal of this discussion is not to suggest that parliament continuing to function would have served as a silver bullet to bad policy or governmental overreach. Rather, the idea is to explore how the democratic structures of our Constitution can act as a restraint on government power – making it imperative that we demand more from our elected officials.

The legal sources of the government’s measures are the Disaster Management Act 2005 (“DMA”) and the Epidemic Disease Act 1897 (“EDA”). Under these two laws, the government has issued several ‘guidelines’ that form the legal framework of India’s ongoing ‘lockdown’. We often think that legislatures, with their lengthy debates, committee procedures, and voting are cumbersome bodies not suited to the decisive action required in an emergency. The truth of this is debatable. For example, the numerous clarifications and addendums to the Ministry of Home Affairs’ circulars demonstrate the value of debate and committee scrutiny. However, the choice of the DMA and the EDA become especially significant when we consider the two courses of action the Constitution itself provides for dealing with extreme situations calling for immediate action: (1) declare a constitutional emergency; or (2) pass an ordinance. Both a constitutional emergency and the passing an ordinance require that the legislature (at some future point) ratify the government’s actions. Therefore, we can conclude that even the most extreme situations contemplated by the Constitution involve some legislative oversight. The DMA and the EDA however bypass the legislative branch altogether resulting in a “rule by executive decree”. This has some important consequences.

The temporary nature of emergencies

Emergency powers are fundamentally temporary. The term ‘derogation’ is often used to explain the relaxing of some legal requirements during periods of crisis – but such relaxations are essential exceptions to the ordinary rule of law and all derogations have a recognised beginning and most importantly an end. When the crisis subsides, the political and legal system must return to normal. When a constitutional emergency is proclaimed under Article 352 of the Constitution, the emergency automatically ceases after one month if not placed before Parliament and (if approved) again automatically ceases after six months unless re-approved by Parliament. Even ordinary legislation granting wide emergency powers such as the U.S. PATRIOT Act (enacted in 2001 to fight terrorism post the 11 September attacks) contained a ‘sunset’ clause providing that large parts of the Act would cease to operate in 2005 unless renewed. An even more poignant example is the U.K.’s Coronavirus Act. Before it was passed, the (then) Coronavirus Bill granted the government emergency powers for two years. After the opposition objected, the government agreed to amend the Bill – providing that the House of Commons must debate and renew emergency powers granted by the Bill every six months. In evaluating the Coronavirus Bill, the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee noted: “Two years would have been too long for these powers to have operated without reapproval by Parliament and we welcome the cross-party agreement to reduce the period to six months” (here). The rationale behind granting the executive sweeping emergency powers is therefore always contingent on (1) the existence of a crisis; and (2) a return to normalcy at the earliest possible instance.

The following questions now become relevant. Who declares the start of an emergency? How long will the emergency last? Does it need to be renewed? Who is responsible for its renewal? Can the legality of the declaration be challenged in a court?

Precisely because an emergency vests significant powers in the executive, it makes sense that another body should be responsible for the declaration of an emergency. Otherwise what stops the executive from invoking an emergency in manner that is at best frivolous, and at worst self-serving. For example, a government could declare an emergency and use its emergency powers to silence political dissidents. In the U.S. even though the executive is tasked with all operational aspects of fighting a war, the executive cannot take any action unless the legislature (Congress) first passes a declaration of war. The U.K.’s unwritten constitution contains no notion of emergency powers and the executive is entirely reliant on the legislature first passing a legislation enabling the executive to exercise any additional powers. The same principle applies to renewals, it makes sense that a body other than the executive is responsible for renewing the executive’s emergency powers. Requiring another body to determine whether a situation is truly exigent and how long it will likely last for is an essential check against the abuse of emergency powers by the executive. This is a significantly stronger check than having courts adjudicate on the legality of the emergency proclamation after it is made as the damage may already be done by the time the court delivers a verdict (especially at the pace the Indian Supreme Court currently hears politically sensitive cases).

The Indian Constitution does envision Parliament playing a crucial role in the declaration of constitutional emergencies by requiring that all emergency proclamations be placed before Parliament within one month. Admittedly Parliament’s record of acting as a check on the executive with respect to emergency proclamations is a poor one – in July 1974 Parliament ratified the Indira Gandhi government’s emergency proclamation leading to three years of systemic governmental overreach. One may assume given India’s model of parliamentary democracy (where the executive’s party commands a majority in the legislature), legislative ratification is a forgone conclusion. While the individual judgement of parliamentarians has been severely curtailed by the anti-defection law, there still exists the chance (especially in coalition governments) that the government will have to work harder to appease the various factions of its own support base. Moreover, having even a token debate in parliament is a significant improvement on the current situation.

It is important to understand that the DMA requires no formal declaration of emergency (even under the Act’s own framework). Therefore, the ground reality is that the executive has been granted sweeping emergency powers, the courts are virtually at a standstill and public gathers have been outlawed – all without an emergency being ‘declared’ or any justification for when exactly the coronavirus became an emergency or any indication of when the emergency will end. (The use of the term ‘notified disaster’ was used widely in the media but has no relation to the beginning or ending of the government’s emergency powers and only concerns the use of disaster relief funds.) It is particularly important to recognise that the coronavirus outbreak may be with us for a while. The nationwide ‘lockdown’ has already been extended twice. Much like the ‘war on terror’, what seemed necessary as an immediate response can perpetuate a permanent derogation from the rule of law. In a Parliament approved emergency, ratification by Parliament may have been (and with good reason) a foregone conclusion in March, but three, six or nine months later the government may have faced some pressure to justify a renewal of its emergency powers. Under the DMA however, they face no such pressure to justify a continued resort to emergency powers. Therefore, it is crucial to create temporal boundaries on the invocation of emergency powers and it is submitted that ratification by parliament is one method to do so.

Incentivising parliamentary scrutiny

The ratification of emergency proclamations and ordinances by Members of Parliament creates a powerful incentive for them to scrutinise government action and can require the government to moderate its position. During the coronavirus outbreak Italy used ‘Decree-Laws’ – a decree issued by the government which must be placed before the Italian Parliament within sixty days (here). Similarly, in India, an ordinance cannot be enacted unless Parliament is not in session and must be placed before Parliament upon its reassembly. The ordinance expires unless expressly passed as a piece of legislation by Parliament within six weeks of Parliament reassembling. What this means is that parliamentarians are on the hook for the legal content of these measures. While this may be less of an incentive for members of the ruling party, it creates an incentive for members of the opposition to scrutinise the legislation. Parliamentarians are held electorally accountable for their votes for or against a legislation and draconian measures by a government are unlikely to pass without some form of debate and scrutiny when brought before Parliament. For example, recently the opposition forced multiple adjournments in the Lok Sabha until the government agreed to discuss the communal violence in Delhi (here).

This brings us neatly to the point of parliamentary questions and debate – where members of the opposition have unfettered access to government ministers. Although the actual mechanisms of questions and the debate (or ‘zero-hour’) in Parliament are worth an independent exposition a few key points may be made here. The first is the nature of the threat we are currently facing. Unlike a war with another nation or the fight against ‘terrorism’ where increased transparency may hamper the government’s efforts to defeat the threat – in a public health crisis more transparency is always better. The government should disclose the scientific data on which it bases its decisions. This will not hamper the fight against the coronavirus but will expose bad decision making. Second, unlike questions asked in a newsroom or addressed on social media, questions asked in Parliament form part of the official record of the House and can be used to hold ministers accountable (here). Third, unlike the news media, Members of the legislature cannot be silenced by the courts (see Articles 105 and 194 of the Constitution under which Members enjoy legislative privileges). The Supreme Court’s recent efforts to silence ‘fake news’ and instead mandate reliance on information produced by the government and the statements of the Solicitor General of India make this particularly relevant. Lastly, parliamentary proceedings are broadcast live on national television and on the internet.

There is a deeper point to be made here. Government transparency, and ministerial accountability is fundamentally tied to the broader question of electoral accountability. During proceedings in parliament, it is government ministers who answer questions. This allows voters to evaluate the performance of the government first-hand in an unfiltered manner. To date, a Joint Secretary from the Ministry of Health has given almost all the coronavirus press briefings. The Joint Secretary is an unelected official and making such an official the face of the crisis disassociates ministerial responsibility from the actions of the government in combatting the crisis. Even in the U.S. where the President is not politically accountable to the legislature (outside the extreme case of impeachment), as the head of the executive the President has continued to deliver daily press conferences and answer questions – in stark contrast to the head of the executive in India. Neither the Health Minister not the Prime Minister is legally obligated to give press briefings, but their refusal to do so makes Parliament one of the last forums where the government can be asked hard questions.

Could Parliament have continued to function?

This post would not be complete without addressing the elephant in the room. On 23 March 2020 Parliament was adjourned over fears that the gathering of Members would act as a vector for transmission. Two questions must be answered: (1) can Parliament legally meet outside its official seat; and (2) what the alternative options that Parliament can adopt are. Article 85 of the Constitution permits the President to summon Parliament “at such time and place as he thinks fit” and Rule 11 of the ‘Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha’ states that “A sitting of the House is duly constituted when it is presided over by the Speaker or any other member competent to preside over a sitting of the House under the Constitution or these rules.” (Rule 10 of the Rajya Sabha rules contains an analogous provision.) Therefore, the short answer is that the place of meeting does not matter so long the President summons Parliament and the Speaker, or other competent person, presides over Parliament. (Interested readers may refer to Shubhankar Dam’s article on precisely this point. He cites historical instances where the ‘place’ of meeting has been in dispute.)

Therefore theoretically, Parliament can meet at an alternative location that is more conducive to social distancing norms or even potentially online. Some comparative context is useful here. Several countries, Australia, New Zealand and Germany amongst them, have struggled to keep their legislature’s open and have adjourned them during the present outbreak. However, Congress in the U.S. has met several times to pass emergency economic legislation. The House of Commons in the U.K. has met virtually, with Members asking questions from remote locations. Similarly, the Canadian Parliament has managed to meet virtually. Perhaps most tellingly, the Indian Supreme Court and various High Courts have managed to implement protocols to allow virtual hearings for thousands of litigants since the beginning of the ‘lockdown’. There would certainly be some teething troubles, but it would not be beyond the realm of possibility to assume that the Indian Parliament could continue to function during the ‘lockdown’. I will end this discussion with two points. As I noted earlier, Parliament sitting is not a silver bullet to all the country’s ailments – given the legislative frameworks which already exist under the DMA and the EDA and the ever present anti-defection law Parliament’s role would certainly be limited. However, eliminating Parliament from governance during an emergency is neither contemplated by the Constitution nor is should it be condoned by the voters who elected this Parliament. At the very least, the limited benefits of Parliament sitting highlighted here could be secured.

Concluding thoughts

Notions of accountability flowing from a separation of powers model focus on preventing the centralisation of power in one body. For example, the body making the law should be distinct from the body implementing or interpreting the law. However, this model fails to incentivise those in power to listen to citizens. Legislators in the minority can blame those in the majority, the government can blame the judiciary for curbing its measures, and the judiciary can blame an overzealous legislature or the executive (see the eternal dispute over judicial appointments).

Competition for power through democratic structures creates a vital link between citizens and their agents in government. It forces the three wings to look beyond horizontal competition inter-se the executive, the legislature and the judiciary and consider a vertical balance of power where rival power seekers must convince citizens of their ability to effectively govern. This is particularly effective in a plural society such as India where there exists a multiplicity of groups with cross-cutting interests and membership, forcing those in power to cater to a wide range of interests. Parliamentary accountability is one of the best examples of how competition for power can further the interests of citizens. ‘Politicking’ during a crisis may be frowned upon but is also an excellent method to ensure that the citizen’s preferences are accounted for in governance. It forces those in power to accommodate the needs of more diverse interests or risk losing the mandate to govern. A healthy legislative body should ensure this robust competition for power. The strength of the Indian parliament as a deliberative body which can hold the government accountable has been in decline for some time, but the present crisis should not be its death knell.

On the role of courts: and why the supreme court is playing the waiting game

On the Supreme Court’s last working day of 2019, it agreed to hear the constitutional challenge to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (“CAA”). With this, the court takes into its winter vacation the challenges to the CAA, the amendment of Article 370 and the internet shutdowns in Kashmir. Outside the cloistered halls of the court, the public debate over the legality and desirability of these measures has reached fever pitch. With both the legal and political processes of contestation in full swing, it is an appropriate time to examine how divorced the two truly are.

Our trust in courts as institutions of justice flows from a few key ideas: that courts are isolated from short term political pressures, they decide on the basis of settled legal principles irrespective of how politically sensitive a case is, and they are independent from the elected government of the day and thus serve as a check on government power. This piece critically examines these assumptions about courts. I argue that while courts do decide cases in accordance with legal principles, the actual outcomes of crucial constitutional cases balance the requirements of the law, deference to the government, and deference to public sentiment. Recognising that alongside normative legal principles, public sentiment and the government have a crucial role to play in constitutional adjudication re-emphasises the need for active political contestation and debate over these issues.

Isolation, independence and matters of principle

Courts are understood as being isolated from short term political pressures. Unlike elected legislators, who are accountable to their constituents and respond to their immediate needs, unelected judges with fixed tenures and salaries can deliberate in a ‘neutral’ manner and render decisions that may be politically unpopular but necessary for the long term preservation of human rights and democracy. Judges are not bound by party ideology or the need to garner the popular vote, so they can arrive at substantively ‘better’ decisions. For example, after a terrorist attack, public sentiment may overwhelmingly favour the torture and public execution of a captured terrorist. The government, acting on the demands of the electorate, may decide to torture and execute the terrorist (after all, good government responds to what the people want). The courts however, isolated from public sentiment and understanding the long-term benefits of upholding the rule of law and human rights, can ensure the captured terrorist receives a fair trial.

A second assumption underpinning the public trust in courts is that courts rely on precedent (stare decisis) and settled legal principles to decide cases. Therefore, once courts construe the phrase ‘equality’ or ‘liberty’ as having an expansive meaning, the same expansive interpretation will subsequently be applied irrespective of how politically significant or insignificant the facts of a case. This is often why progressive judgements are celebrated, because we presume that the reasoning of these judgements will bind future benches of the court and lower courts. The last, and perhaps most significant, assumption about courts is that they stand independent from the elected government. Coupled with their isolation from short-term political pressures and their commitment to decide cases on legal principles, this leads to the overarching argument that courts stand as a check against the abuse of government power.

A chequered track record

A close examination of the track record of courts during periods of regularised and flagrant human rights violations casts doubt on the argument that courts are effective checks on majoritarian government power. In India, the most famous example of the court’s failure to resist the use of government power is ADM Jabalpur v S S Shukla. The case, heard at the height of the emergency imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after her election was challenged in 1975, centred around whether individuals detained by the government (often political opponents of the Prime Minister) had a right to approach the courts for relief during the emergency. Despite several High Courts holding that detained persons had a right to approach the court even during an emergency, in ADM Jabalpur the Supreme Court held that no such right existed and left the detentions to the sole supervision of the government. The Indian Supreme Court is not alone in turning a blind eye to the exercise of government power against its citizens during times of national or political crisis. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the internment of all persons of Japanese ancestry in Korematsu v United States – citing the overriding needs of national security and avoidance of espionage. In Liversidge v Anderson the House of Lords held that the Home Secretary did not have to objectively justify his detention order with reasons and the such matters were not justiciable in courts. These cases have since been overruled or denounced as ‘black marks’ on an otherwise unblemished record of judicial history, but they serve as powerful reminders that when governments exercised their power against citizens in the most extreme ways, courts have been found to be inadequate protectors.

Sabarimala – the Supreme Court’s problem child

A prime example of how far the Indian Supreme Court’s behaviour can stray from the core assumptions we associate with courts acting as politically insulated institutions dispensing justice according to legal principles is the court’s treatment of the Sabarimala dispute. To recap: in 2018 a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court struck down the prohibition on menstruating women entering the Sabarimala temple as violating the constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination. The judgement led to a public backlash in Kerala (the state where the Sabarimala temple is situated). Those opposing the judgement took the law into their own hands and refused to permit the entry of women into the temple, often attacking women who tried to enter. A review petition was filed against the 2018 judgement, the significant irregularities of which have already been addressed on this blog (here) and do not need to be rehashed. It is sufficient to note that one judge (Khanwilkar J) refused to stand by the judgement he had signed less than a year ago in 2018 and in November 2019 the court decided that the 2018 judgement needed to be ‘reconsidered’ by a larger bench. To understand what happened next, it is important to note that by referring the dispute to a larger bench, the court did not stay the 2018 judgement but merely kept the review petition pending. The pendency of a review petition does not deprive a judgement from having the force of law. This means that at the time of writing this post, the 2018 judgement remains good law and a woman should be able to enter Sabarimala. When the Supreme Court was asked to direct the Kerala Government to uphold and enforce the judgement, the Chief Justice of India acknowledged that there was no stay on the 2018 judgement, but refused to direct the State Government to enforce the judgement – noting the matter was “very emotive” and the court wanted to avoid violence.

The treatment of Sabarimala is a testament to how the Indian Supreme Court consider both legal principles and public sentiment in deciding constitutional cases. The 2018 judgement was based precisely on the legal principles we associate with constitutional courts. However, unlike the court’s decisions decriminalising consensual gay sex or adultery, where the court’s decision faced widespread and organised public resistance, the court did a double take, refusing to enforce its judgement and stating that the judgement itself needed to be ‘reconsidered’. The ‘settled’ legal principles of equality laid down in 2018 (which we expect to bind future courts) succumbed to the changed political landscape of 2019. Changing public sentiment leading to the court ‘flip-flopping’ on outcomes is not new, and not always detrimental to the rights of citizens. For example, in 2013 the Indian Supreme Court refused to decriminalise consensual gay sex but five years later the court did decriminalise it. It is perfectly possible for future benches to disagree with past ones; however, the incremental nature of such change is essential to maintain the public trust that courts are insulated from the politics of the day. The casting in doubt of Sabarimala within a year, in the face of abject and consistent non-compliance with the judgement by the government and citizens, points to just how thin the court’s veneer of being insulated from public sentiment and deciding cases purely on legal principles is.

Plenty has been written on why the CAA is unconstitutional and should be struck down for violating Article 14 and its resultant jurisprudence (including here on this blog). However, the very idea that the court will apply the legal principles it has previously laid down is caveated by the court’s regular deviation from settled principles in the face of troubling ground realities or persistent public sentiment to the contrary.

Judicial independence 

The last assumption is that courts stand independent of the government and form the ultimate protectors of individual rights against state action. Historically, we have seen that this has not always been the case. As a matter of constitutional design, courts control neither the ‘sword nor the purse’. In other words, courts rely on the government to implement and abide by their decisions. The extent to which the government does so is a function of how much public legitimacy and authority the court wields at any given time. In a handful of jurisdictions, court have over centuries entrenched themselves to a point where non-compliance with their judgements is unthinkable and a government refusing to comply with a court judgement would risk being voted out of power by an electorate that deeply values the rule of law. For example, when the British Prime Minister’s advice to the Queen to suspend parliament was found to be unconstitutional by the U.K. Supreme Court, the question was not whether the Prime Minister would comply with the decision, but rather whether he would apologise to the Queen and British public.

In most jurisdictions however, where courts have not had the time or opportunity (or have squandered both) to create a deep sense of institutional credibility and win the public trust, courts are far more vulnerable to government interference.  If a court were to repeatedly strike down government action, the government can register its discontent with the court in several ways. The most common (and visible) tactic is to delay/interfere with the process of judicial appointments. Right from Indira Gandhi’s appointment of A N Ray as Chief Justice (superseding the three senior most judges of the Supreme Court who had ruled against her government) to the current government’s delays in confirming judges, Indian courts have regularly been susceptible to government pressure over judicial appointments. The government may also refuse to provide funding and infrastructure for courts. At the extreme, the government can simply refuse to comply with or implement the judgements of the court. The Indian Home Minister’s recent suggestion that the non-implementation of Supreme Court judgements was an acceptable state of affairs runs dangerously close to an outright refusal to acknowledge the authority of the court. In such situations, courts must not only apply the law, but also balance the needs of the law with deference to the government to ensure the court’s continued survival as an institution.

Indian jurisprudence is replete with such deference. In 1975 when the Allahabad High Court found the then Prime Minister (Indira Gandhi) guilty of corrupt practices and invalidated her electoral victory, the government passed a constitutional amendment designed specifically to nullify the invalidation. In the Supreme Court, the constitutional amendments were struck down, but the Prime Minister’s election victory was upheld, allowing Indira Gandhi to remain in power. In Maneka Gandhi v the Union the petitioner’s passport was impounded, and no reasons provided. She approached the court contending that her right to a fair trial and to put forth her defence had been taken away. In a sweeping judgement, the court significantly expanded the scope and rigour of scrutiny, holding that procedure by which liberties are infringed must be ‘fair, reasonable and just’. However, rather than invalidate the order impounding of the passport or the provisions of the Passport Act, the court took on record the Attorney General’s assurance that the government would ‘consider’ the court’s observations and left the matter to the government. Ironically, the last paragraph of Maneka Gandhi (widely touted as a high watermark of Indian human rights jurisprudence) reads:

“The Attorney General assured us that all the grounds urged before us by the petitioner and the grounds that may be urged before the authority will be properly considered by the authority and appropriate orders passed. In the result, I hold that the petitioner is not entitled to any of the fundamental rights enumerated-in Article 19 of the Constitution and that the Passport Act complies with the requirements of Art. 21 of the Constitution and is in accordance with the procedure established by law.”

The Chief Justice’s recent refusal to pass directions for the entry of women at Sabarimala stems in part from the fact that both the Kerala Government and Central Government have indicated their unwillingness to carry out such directions. An order directing the authorities to enforce the judgement would likely be ignored by both governments, triggering a constitutional crisis.

The present day

Having understood that while not entirely independent, the court is undoubtedly uniquely situated, let us examine the court’s recent decisions where the stakes for the government were particularly high. In its Aadhar judgement, the court upheld the government’s collection and use of bio-metric data as part of the Aadhar scheme. The court in 2018 also held the Aadhar Act was correctly certified by the Speaker as a money bill (meaning it was not subject to scrutiny by the Rajya Sabha). But a year later in Rodger Matthew v South Indian Bank the court held that the Aadhar judgement’s reasoning on the issue of money bill was “arguably liberal [in favour of the government]” and “not convincingly reasoned”. The question of how future courts should construe money bills has been referred to a larger bench but peel away the Supreme Court’s strategic antics and the decision in Rodger Matthews is a damming admission that the Aadhar Act was unconstitutional but still upheld by the court.

The Supreme Court’s treatment of the petitions challenging the internet shutdown and detentions in Kashmir and the amendment of Article 370 has been the clearest example of the court’s deference to the government of the day. On 16 September 2019 the court passed an order (analysed here) which didn’t require the government to disclose the legal source of the internet shutdown and left it to the unrestricted discretion of the government to make “endeavours” to restore “normal life”. On 16 December 2019 the internet shutdown in Kashmir entered its 134th day, the longest ever recorded in a democracy. At the time of writing this post, the court is yet to adjudicate on the constitutionality of the internet shut down and the hearings challenging the actual amendment of Article 370 have just taken off.

Recall that vulnerable courts are often called upon to balance the meaning of the law with ensuring a working relationship with the government. After 70 years of democratic constitutionalism, our courts are certainly robust enough to avoid obliteration at the hands of the government. They regularly strike down state and central government actions found to be violative of the Constitution. However, with cases such as Aadhar, Sabarimala, the CAA and Kashmir, where the political stakes for the government are exceptionally high, cracks begin to emerge in the court’s multi-faceted balancing act between the law, public sentiment and deference to the government. In ADM Jabalpur the court compromised its fidelity to the integrity of the law and allowed the government a free reign in return for its continued survival (the supersession of Justice Khanna and the regular transfer of ‘non-complaint’ High Court judges by the government is telling in this regard). Today’s court is neither willing to expressly compromise its intellectual fidelity to the law nor its necessary relationship with the government – and so it sits on the fence, hoping that nobody will notice. The court does not trust its institutional legitimacy is strong enough to rule against the government on politically sensitive matters and continue to maintain a working relationship with the government (the government is equally to blame for this lack of trust). While it also refuses to expressly abandon its fidelity to the integrity of the law (as it did in ADM Jabalpur) and provide express judicial acquiescence of the government’s actions, its refusal to act is fast achieving a similar result indirectly.

Conclusion

Recognising that the central assumptions held about courts as counter-majoritarian institutions are flawed is the first step towards understanding the actions of the Supreme Court recently. The court undoubtedly analyses and applies legal principles on a day to day basis. However, in deciding constitutional cases with high political stakes, courts also consider the impact the decision will have on the government (Aadhaar and Kashmir), the prevailing public sentiment of the day, and the impact on the ground (Sabarimala). Absent any enforcement powers, the court’s is as bold as it thinks the government and people will allow it to be.

In deciding the host of thorny issues on its plate in 2020, the Supreme Court is likely to consider the prevailing public sentiment, strive to maintain a working relationship with the government, and lay down some important law. While the court’s legal questions will be answered by a handful of lawyers in Courtroom 1, the question of how strictly the court will apply the law to fulfil its constitutional role as a meaningful check on government power will be answered by every other Indian. This calls for renewed scrutiny of the court’s actions that denude the legitimacy of its decision making process (some examples include the use of sealed covers, the (mis)use of the master of the roster role, a flawed appointment process and the regular overriding of High Courts). Such actions not only violate core legal norms, but also reduce the public trust in the institution, reducing its institutional authority to act as a check on government power. Understanding the limitations of courts also highlights the need to strengthen the accountability and contestation within other wings of government beginning with our electoral and parliamentary processes.

Financing the General Elections: Electoral Bonds and Disclosure Requirements under the Constitution

The electoral bonds scheme was introduced by the 2017 Finance Act, challenged before the Supreme Court in 2018, and made headlines in 2019 when the court finally began hearing the matter and passed an interim order. Briefly, the scheme allows individuals and companies to purchase “electoral bonds” issued by the State Bank of India and subsequently donate the bonds to a political party. Under the scheme, only a political party registered under the Representation of People’s Act 1951 (RPA) is eligible to receive and encash electoral bonds. Electoral bonds are therefore bespoke campaign finance instruments to allow donors, or ‘contributors’, to contribute to political parties. The bonds are issued in denominations ranging from one thousand rupees up to one crore.

Crucially, through several legislative changes (discussed below), political parties do not have to disclose to voters either the identity of the contributor, or the amount received through electoral bonds. The electoral bonds scheme itself provides that,

the information furnished by the buyer shall be treated [as] confidential by the authorised bank and shall not be disclosed to any authority for any purposes, except when demanded by a competent court or upon registration of criminal case by any law enforcement agency.

One of the grounds on which the scheme has been challenged is that citizens have a right to know the identity of the contributors and the amounts being contributed to each party. In its interim order, the Supreme Court required all political parties to submit to the court (in a sealed cover) the details of money received under the electoral bonds scheme.

On this blog we discussed the concerns raised by the Supreme Court’s interim order (here). In this post I argue that the electoral bonds are part of a more comprehensive legislative agenda which increases the overall volume of campaign contributions and decreases the information voters have about these contributions. I then examine whether the electoral bonds scheme is constitutional in light of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on a citizen’s “right to know” under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Exploring the rationale behind a voter’s “right to know”, I argue that disclosing campaign contributions is necessary because it allows voters to better understand a candidate or party’s position on important issues and evaluate whether a candidate (and eventually, elected official) is “too compliant” with the wishes of their contributors.

Recent changes in campaign finance law

The current government has made several changes to campaign finance laws in the last two years. Firstly, the government removed the cap on corporate donations contained in Section 182 of the Companies Act 2013 under which a company could not contribute more than 7.5% of its net profits for the previous three years. The amendment also removed the requirement that companies disclose the total amount contributed and identity of the political party that the company contributed to. There is now no cap on how much money a company can contribute to a political party. Further, by removing the requirement that the political contributions must come from profits, there is a risk that donors set up shell companies that do not actually conduct any legitimate business but exist solely to funnel money to political parties.

The government also amended the Foreign Contributions Registration Act (FCRA). Under the FCRA as it stood before the amendment, companies that were more than 50% foreign owned were prohibited from donating (or “contributing”) to political parties. The amendments removed this 50% threshold, permitting companies that are 100% foreign owned to contribute to political parties.

Circling back to the electoral bonds scheme, prior to the amendments by the government, political parties were required to report all contributions over twenty thousand rupees (under Section 29C of the RPA) and keep a record of the name and address of all such contributors (under Section 13A of the Income Tax Act). Under the government’s amendments, both these reporting requirements were removed in the case of contributions made through electoral bonds.

Thus, it is important to recognise that electoral bonds are part of a sustained and comprehensive legislative agenda that is likely to see a significant increase in campaign contributions to Indian political parties and a significant decrease of information about these contributions to voters. As I argue below, both these outcomes have consequences on the functioning of democracy under the Constitution.

Some Context on Campaign Finance

Campaign finance is a vast and nuanced area of law and political theory, and the intention here is merely to touch on a few simple points to provide context to the legislative changes introduced by the government.  Firstly, a core tenet of democracy is that citizens collectively choose a representative government. Only a government chosen by the citizens is legitimate. Therefore, the process by which citizens choose their representatives (elections) is of paramount important. If elections do not provide citizens with a free and fair method of selecting a candidate of their choice, then the elected government cannot be said to be chosen by the people, and would be illegitimate.

Elections in all countries cost money. However, methods of financing elections vary greatly, from systems of publicly funded elections, to systems of unlimited private contributions. India is somewhere in the middle, private contributions are permitted, but spending by political candidates is capped. In a system where public money is used to finance elections, voters have no interest in knowing how candidates are financed, because all candidates are using public money. However, as we move towards private contributions, and unrestricted private contributions, things get a bit trickier. Where private contributions are permitted, who is funding a candidate becomes an essential part of the candidate’s platform, because contributors will donate to candidates who support their ideas, and candidates may even modify their ideas to secure funding. Thus, a candidate’s stance on issues and who is funding them becomes intricately linked. Thus, in an electoral system where candidates are privately funded (and as I argue in detail below) voters do have an interest in knowing who is funding a candidate.

Corruption

Lastly, it is important to separate campaign contributions from corruption. Corruption, simply, is when a candidate (as a potential elected official) uses their position to enrich themselves personally. Campaign contributions do not enrich the candidates personally, but rather are used by candidates to acquire more votes. (It is possible that some candidates use contributions to enrich themselves, but that is a separate debate.)

The real problem that that campaign contributions can raise is a “quid-pro-quo” deal. Where a candidate takes money from a contributor, and once elected, votes in favour of laws that benefit the contributor. This concern is articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Nixon v Shrink Missouri Government PAC, where the court noted that the concern raised by political contributions is a concern “not confined to bribery of public officials, but extending to the broader threat from politicians [being] too compliant with the wishes of large contributors.” But when is a politician “too compliant”? Is it merely when she votes against the interests of the majority of her constituents? Arguably, in a democracy, it is desirable that voters signal to candidates what their preferences are, both through votes, as well as political contributions. Subsequently, when an elected legislator votes in line with these preferences, they are merely being responsive to the needs of their constituents. Say for example, a rich religious minority that has been historically persecuted contributes large amounts to a candidate, who subsequently votes for a law which prevents future persecution of that minority, can we say that such a candidate is “too compliant”? It is highly likely that such a candidate would have voted the same way irrespective of the contributions. As I argue below, disclosures help with this as well.

One problem that increased contributions can result in is the translation of economic inequality to political inequality. If elected officials respond to issues that have received the greatest support from their constituents in the form of the maximum contributions, the legislative agenda may represent the interests of the largest contributors, and not all individuals in their constituency. This may drown out the political demands of economically weaker sections of society. However, this is a risk inherent in all systems that allow private political contributions and is unlikely to disappear until we either have publicly funded elections or the wider economic inequalities in society are tackled.

Article 19 and the “Right to Know

The most recent hearings on electoral bonds centred around whether the Constitution grants voters the “right to know” who contributed to which political parties, and how much they contributed. Article 19(1) of the Constitution grants all citizen’s a right to free speech. The Article also grants citizens the right to receive information from a person who is willing to speak and share their speech. However, typical conceptions of the freedom of speech do not grant a citizen a right to receive information from an unwilling speaker. In other words, the freedom of speech typically provides a negative right against interference from receiving ‘generally available’ information, but not a positive right to gather or acquire information.

To take an example, the freedom of speech grants a journalist the right to publish an article about a failed military operation by the government. The freedom of speech also protects a citizen’s right to receive the article from the journalist. If the government were to ban the journalist’s article on its failed military operation, this would violate not just the journalist’s freedom of speech but also the citizen’s right to receive information that the journalist wishes to share. However, the freedom of speech does not typically grant the citizen a right to demand details of the failed military operation from the government itself. This would require a separate positive right to acquire information (e.g. as provided by the Right to Information Act 2005).

However, the Indian Supreme Court has expressly recognised that Article 19(1) of the Constitution confers on citizens a positive right to know information about electoral candidates. The Supreme Court has been fairly categorical about this position, noting in its Union of India v Association of Democratic Reforms  decision (Union v ADR)  that, “There is no reason to that freedom of speech and expression would not cover a right to get material information with regard to a candidate who is contesting elections for a post which is of utmost importance in the country.

One of the key roles of freedom of speech in a democracy is to ensure public discourse so that all voices and ideas are heard at the time of collective decision making. By including a positive right to know about electoral candidates, the court has stated that for the effective functioning of democracy under the Constitution, it is not enough that the voice of all candidates are heard. Rather, what is required is that voters receive a minimum standard of information that allows them to make an informed decision, even if the candidates would otherwise be unwilling to provide this information. This is perhaps best articulated in Romesh Thappar v State of Madras where the Supreme Court noted, “The public interest in freedom of discussion stems from the requirement that members of democratic society should be sufficiently informed that they may influence intelligently the decisions which may affect themselves.

In later decisions, the Supreme Court has been far more explicit about the fact that voters must not merely be provided access to the ideas a candidate wishes to portray, but also other objective information that will ensure that the voter makes an sufficiently informed decision. For example, in Union v ADR the court noted that, “Casting of a vote by a misinformed and non-informed voter or a voter having one-sided information only is bound to affect democracy seriously.” What the court is articulating is that standard to be applied to the functioning of democracy under the Constitution, and the standard is not satisfied merely by ensuring that all candidates can freely speak and disseminate their ideas. It requires, at a bare minimum, that voters be sufficiently apprised of their electoral candidates to the point where they can make an informed decision about which candidate is likely to best represent their interests in government. To ensure this, Article 19(1) grants voters a positive right to acquire information about candidates, even if the candidates are unwilling to provide this information.

In Union v ADR ruled that electoral candidates must disclose their assets, educational qualifications, and their involvement in criminal cases for voters to be make an informed decision. This sets a high threshold for the standard of information a voter must possess before voting, leaving the government hard-pressed to argue that voters do not need to know the identity and amounts of political donations received by candidates and parties. As I argue below, the identity of a candidate’s contributors is crucial in allowing voters to make an informed decision.

Disclosures in a Democracy

Recall that the electoral bonds scheme and the surrounding legislative amendments have two primary consequences, (1) they increase the total volume of political contributions, and (2) make it neigh impossible for voters to discern the identity and volume of donations made to candidates. The most obvious function of disclosures is that where the conduct of a legislator blatantly panders to a political contributor without any public utility, disclosures bring to light such behaviour. As the Supreme Court noted in People’s Union of Civil Liberties v Union of India, “There can be little doubt that exposure to the public gaze and scrutiny is one of the surest means to cleanse our democratic governing system and to have competent legislatures.”

However, beyond this, disclosures allow voters themselves to decide when an elected official is being “too compliant” with the wishes of their contributors. As noted above, it is often difficult to determine when an elected official is “too compliant” with the wishes of their contributors. It is likely that individuals will disagree over when an elected official’s action is “too compliant”. However, when contributions are disclosed, each voter can decide for herself when an official’s behaviour is “too compliant” with the interests of their respective contributors and punish the legislator by not voting for them in the next election. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted when examining the constitutionality of campaign finance disclosures in the landmark decision of Buckley v Valeo (Buckley), disclosures “provide the electorate with information as to where political campaign money comes from and how it is spent by the candidate in order to aid the voters in evaluating those who seek federal office.” Knowing whether an official is likely to represent, or only represent, the wishes of their political contributors is crucial information for an individual voter in deciding whether the official will represent that individual voter’s interest in government.

Lastly, as noted by Elizaabeth Garrett, campaign contribution disclosures allow voters to understanding where a candidate stands on key issues. For example, a voter may not have the time or expertise to discern whether a candidate is in favour of the coal industry based on a candidate’s manifesto or draft legislation. However, when the voter learns that the candidate receives most of her campaign contributions from the coal industry, the voter may understand that the candidate is in favour of the coal industry. This is because the interest groups closest to the issue (the coal industry) would only have contributed to the candidate’s campaign because they believe that the candidate will support legislation beneficial to the coal industry. Because contributing to a campaign is “an observable and costly effort on the part of the contributor”, knowing who contributed to a campaign allow voters to discern a candidate’s likely position on issues. (Garrett also cites empirical studies where voters informed of whom contributed to a candidate were able to vote on-par with candidates who had actively researched candidates – her paper on disclosures and voter competence can be found here.)

Recall that the Supreme Court has already stated that for voters to effectively exercise their role as voters under the Constitution, they must be provided with certain basic information. A key question in case of electoral bonds scheme is whether the identity of the contributor and the quantum of the contributions received by the candidates is part of this essential information a voter should receive to be sufficiently informed. By denying voters this information, the electoral bonds scheme makes it impossible for voters to understand when their elected politicians are acting in favour of large political contributors – even the politicians may be blatantly doing so. Further, electoral bonds allow politicians to hide their position on certain issues by receiving funding from interest groups anonymously. A voter might be inclined to vote for a candidate based on their publicly available information such as a candidate’s speeches or track record. However, that same voter may hesitate if they discovered that the candidate received large amounts from interest groups promoting religious persecution, or tax cuts for large business.

The Government’s Arguments

In defending the electoral bonds scheme, the government has argued that electoral bonds reduce the amount of ‘black’ (i.e. illicitly obtained) money in elections, as contributions are routed through the State Bank of India which performs ‘Know-Your-Customer’ checks on contributors. This does not eliminate the risk that a contributor will merely funnel ‘black’ money through a legitimate or ‘clean’ company or individual, especially as neither companies nor political parties are required to keep a record of large donors any more. In short, the electoral bonds scheme does nothing to ensure that the origin of the money contributed is legitimate.

Another argument that may be used to defend the electoral bonds scheme is one of contributor privacy. As discussed earlier on this blog (here), individuals have a right to the privacy in their associations, and this would include a contributor seeking to donate to a candidate. Take the example of a candidate who speaks out in favour of a religious minority. If the state were to publish the names of all the people who contributed to this outspoken candidate, these contributors might be dissuaded from contributing to the outspoken candidate. Worse, the contributors may face persecution precisely for contributing to the outspoken candidate (something they have a constitutionally protected right to do). Thus, by not protecting the privacy of their  (political) associations, the state would be violating their right to participate in the electoral process.

This is certainly a concern and arguably, where contributors are at risk, a balance must be struck. Garrett notes that in Buckley, as well as in Brown v Socialist Workers, the U.S. Supreme Court exempted campaigns from making disclosures where there existed “specific evidence of hostility, threats, harassment and reprisals.” This is a balanced solution. In the general, where there are no risks to contributors, the voters right to know requires candidates to disclose their contributors and contributions. In specific instances, where a credible risk exists that compelling disclosures will dissuade or put at risk contributors, their privacy must be maintained. Electoral bonds however, exempt disclosures in all situations. Thus, unless the government is able to reverse this – generally requiring disclosures, and creating a nuanced system as to when parties can be keep the source of contributions anonymous, the electoral bonds scheme violates the voters right to know.

Conclusion

To provide some context to the scale of the problem, information procured under the Right to Information Act from the State Bank of India noted (here) that over six hundred crores worth of electoral bonds were purchased between March and October of 2018. The Supreme Court’s interim order in the electoral bonds case is troubling. By refusing strike down the electoral bonds scheme and compel parties to disclose to the citizens of the country who is financing them, the court has taken a step back from its previously strong jurisprudence on a voter’s right to know. Striking down these amendments would have sent a strong signal that any amendments to campaign finance laws must respect that democracy under the constitution requires an informed and empowered voter.  As noted above, who is funding a candidate is vital information that allows a voter to understand where a candidate stands on key issues. That the court refused to do this during an ongoing general election, when this information is most relevant to voters, makes the court’s current stance particularly egregious.

Justice Kavanaugh and the Collegium: reflections on the increasing significance of judicial appointments

Justice Bret Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings have certainly given us food for thought. The issues raised by the hearings have received some expert commentary, including Jack Balkin’s insightful post on ‘constitutional rot’ (here) and the series of posts on the Law and Political Economy blog (here). While certain aspects of the confirmation hearings were unique to the American political and constitutional experience, India too has a well-documented struggle with judicial appointments and recently underwent its own moment of introspection on a key judicial figure with the retirement of former Chief Justice Dipak Misra.

In this post I ask the question, why are the stakes for a seat on the constitutional court so high? The way constitutional courts are designed certainly provides an immediate set of answers. There are only nine judges on the United States supreme court and they enjoy lifetime appointments, allowing a single judge to impact the outcome of cases for several decades. However, even in India where the supreme court consists of thirty-one judges having limited terms, the court and government have struggled to see eye-to-eye on judicial appointments. The court has repeatedly struck down attempts to reform the ‘collegium’ system, where judges themselves decide who should be appointed to the supreme court. In return, the government has refused to confirm the appointment of certain appointments made by the ‘collegium’ to the supreme court. Just this week, the Chief Justice took up the issue of the government ‘selectively’ confirming judicial appointments (here). In this post, I argue that it is the conduct and role of the court that has raised the stakes of judicial appointments to boiling point.

The conduct of the court, intended to curtail governmental overreach, has come to include detailed matters of public policy. Further, the court has become a centre of political power, advancing political views on deeply divisive issues. This piece does not seek to make an argument against judicial review, nor does it advocate, in the words of Mark Tushnet, taking the constitution away from the courts. However, in a month of historic outcomes for the Indian supreme court, it advocates some circumspect on the high stature of the court.

The role of judicial review

Part III (Fundamental Rights) of the Indian constitution explicitly recognises that individuals can approach the court, and the court can strike down government action that is incompatible with the fundamental rights. By allowing a law to be struck down on the grounds that it is incompatible with a fundamental right, the constitution recognises that an individual’s political interest cannot be subsumed by the general interest. A person’s fundamental rights must therefore be given appropriate weight when measured against the interests of the community. Famously, in the words of Dworkin, rights act as “trumps” in certain situations. The powers of the court are not strictly limited to invalidating government action, the court can, for example, direct the government to take certain actions to ensure fundamental rights are upheld (by a writ of mandamus). However, in practice, the actions of the court far exceed this.

Take the recent example of the court’s involvement in the Coordinator of National Registration (NRC) in Assam. Article 11 of the constitution states that parliament will have the power to create laws for the “acquisition and termination of citizenship and all other matters relating to citizenship.” However, the court not only ‘supervised’ the procedure by which thousands of individuals were added and omitted to the list of potential citizens, but it also determined which documents could be used to make a claim to citizenship. After the draft NRC was published, the court required re-verification of ten percent of the names would be required, so that the court could be satisfied that the list was accurate. By dictating what documents could be used by an individual to prove they were a citizen (the evidentiary standard for citizenship), the court effectively determined when an individual is a citizen.

Even more worrying was that the court acted to the exclusion of other branches of the government. For example, the court noted,

 Having regard to the nature of the work that is involved in the process of upgrading the NRC, we direct the State Coordinator to submit a report to the Court. […] The above information will be laid before the Court by the State Coordinator without any consultation with any Authority whatsoever and without reverting to the State Government or any Authority in the Union Government.

As argued by the Attorney General, this exclusion of the governments hampers the task of the officers who must deal with the facts on the ground. The court also passed orders on when the draft had to be published, if the NRC officers were permitted to speak to the press, and whether they needed police protection. The Court’s excruciatingly detailed supervision was showcased when the state government argued that more time was required to complete the NRC because of local panchayat elections. The court noted,

we, however, permit the State Government to take the services of one Additional Deputy Commissioner in each district who may be currently engaged in the NRC work and deploy the said officer in each district for the work connected with the Panchayat Elections.

The court’s conduct vis-à-vis the NRC is not a case of judicial review where an individual’s rights are aggrieved by state action. Determining how and when officers should be stationed is a distributive choice on how the nation’s resources are utilised. In close to a decade of hearing the case, the court has never once referred to either the fundamental rights at stake or even the government action that is the subject of judicial review. When the attorney general argued that certain aspects of the case were best left to the executive, the court cited executive inaction as a justification for court supervision. The NRC is not an isolated case, the court has laid down and monitored the India’s forest policy for over two decades in the (still ongoing) writ petition Godavarman v Union of India. While the pitfalls associated with the court assuming such a role are not the subject of this piece, it is evident that the conduct of the court is no longer limited to judicial review. It can compel even a government that is not seeking to undermine constitutional provisions to expend resources on certain goals that the court designates as important. The court is not merely a ‘check on governmental power’, but itself a powerful centre for policy on how the country should be run.

The court as a centre of politics  

The court has also used its power to advanced political ideas on deeply divisive issues. The most recent example of this is the court’s decision in the Sabarimala case, where the court struck down the restriction on menstruating women entering the Sabarimala temple. To understand the political significance of the judgement, it is necessary to appreciate the centrality of secularism to the Indian constitution, so a quick recap is called for.

Article 25(1) reads,

Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.

Article 26 goes on to note that,

every religious denomination shall have the right […] to manage its own affairs in matters of religion 

This inherent tension in the constitution highlights both the disagreement that existed over the extent of State interference in religion and the requirement for continuity/ communal harmony, as well as the sharp contradictions that existed between the aspirational goals of the constitution and surrounding society. As Gary Jacobsohn notes, “So deep was religion’s penetration into Indian life, and so historically entwined was it in the configuration of a social structure that was by any reasonable standard, grossly unjust, that […] State intervention in the spiritual domain could not be constitutionally foreclosed.” Yet it is precisely this deep penetration of religion that leads to an inherent tension between the aspirational social-reform goals of the constitution and the requirement for communal harmony. The drafters of the constitution, operating in the shadow of partition, were acutely aware of the essential role of religion in social life. Thus, while social reform through State action was necessary, the acknowledgement of religious autonomy and permitting “culturally inflected interests” to be represented were essential to the maintenance of democracy in India.  Thus, Indian secularism required a balance between socio-economic reform of religion and tolerance of the deeply engrained and pluralistic practices existing across the country.

This is precisely the tension that the Sabarimala judgement brought to the forefront, down to the opinions of the judges. When Justice Malhotra argues for the validity of the ban on women entering the temple, she does so on grounds of respect for religious pluralism, while Justice Chandrachud gives voice to the argument that State intervention in certain situations is warranted. Of course, the rub lies in when such intervention is warranted, and who can ask for such intervention.

The religious sphere is certainly open to interference by the constitutional promise of social reform, but as Jacobsohn notes, “the legitimacy of this undertaking is at least partially dependent on preserving political space for religious identity.” By taking up the case, the court reduced this political space to the respondent’s lawyers in the courtroom. By striking down the ban, the court has struck down the practice of a religious group on the grounds of social reform at the behest of individuals who are not members of that religious group. This certainly alters the subtle constitutional balance between the social-reform goals of the constitution and the promise of communal harmony. As we have seen, the place of religion in Indian society is deeply contested. Yet the court’s seemingly insulated position often obscures the fact that the court is a vigorous and powerful participant in this contestation.

Conclusion

Given everything set out above, it is clear why the political class might seek to entrench allies in the judiciary, and consequently why, the judicial appointment process becomes contentious. Unlike in the United States, where judges are appointed by the executive branch and confirmed by the legislature, in India we have the collegium system, whereby senior judges appoint junior members of the court. While perhaps less partisan that the American court, the Indian court is no less political. As Anuj Bhuwania notes, the court’s PIL jurisdiction grants “blanket powers to judges to act as per their ideological beliefs in order to help the poor and promote distributive justice.” One would be hard pressed to find a politician who argue that his role differed from this role of the courts, except for the politician, blanket powers remain a forlorn dream.

This post sought to highlight why a place on the court is important. It is important because the court has endowed itself with vast powers and these powers are used to implement the policy and to drive the politics of the court.

The role of the court in its present iteration raises the age-old problem of political legitimacy. The court is an unelected body. As Jeremy Waldron notes, it is far easier to explain to someone who holds a contrary political opinion that, “Everyone’s votes were counted, and your side got fewer votes” than it is to say, your principled argument lost 4-1 on the constitutional bench. Can one approach the thousands of protestors at Sabarimala with the majority opinion in hand and expect immediate acceptance? What we are truly concerned about is the court exercising its expansive powers without the legitimate authority to do so. The protests against Justice Kavanaugh no doubt in part stemmed from the fact that this one man would have the power to decide whether millions of women could abort unwanted pregnancies or not. To ask if such a system is desirable is to ask where the legitimate authority to govern us comes from. Is it the constitution, the democratic process, a learned judge, or some combination of them all? Until then, we should prepare ourselves for the next round of high stakes judge selection.

The Meaning and Limits of Democracy under the Constitution: Perspective on NCT of Delhi v Union of India

On this blog (here) we recently analysed the Supreme Court’s verdict in the NCT of Delhi v Union of India. Now that the dust has settled on the judgement and its immediate outcomes, it is worth considering where the judgement stands in our constitutional jurisprudence, the idea of democracy under the constitution.

The crux of the dispute in NCT of Delhi came down to an interpretation of Article 239AA. The article creates a legislature directly elected from the constituencies of Delhi, led by a council of ministers that are “collectively responsible” to the legislature This council will “aid and advise” the Lieutenant Governor (LG). Article 239AA(4) stipulates that in the event of a disagreement between the council and the LG “on any matter”, the LG can refer the disagreement to the President. As we know, the Supreme Court held that the “aid and advice” of the council of ministers is binding on the LG, whose express approval is not required for every initiative of the Delhi government. The LG can disagree on certain matters (we will discuss this later). In interpreting Article 239AA, the Supreme Court relied on certain “principles” that it used to justify its interpretation, chief amongst these was democracy.

In this post, I seek to examine the principle of democracy espoused by the court. The court’s judgement provides a defence of democracy that stems from the political legitimacy created by every individual having a vote, and thus a say in the running of government. The court uses this foundational principle to outline what it means to be democratic within our constitutional framework. Ultimately, in interpreting when the LG can disagree with the council of ministers, the court also highlights the limits of the political legitimacy that voting creates. In other words, the democratic nature of the constitution requires all citizens to be able to influence government. The views of the citizens form the inputs of the governmental decision-making process, and all views must be heard for the decisions of government to be legitimate. However, sometimes, the needs of the citizens must be balanced with the need for the continued existence of the government itself.

The political legitimacy of democracy

Broadly speaking, the constitution uses two methods to ensure the State does not dominate its citizens: (1) by ensuring government policies treat all citizens with equal respect; and (2) ensuring all views are heard when determining government policies. An example of the former would be a fundamental rights challenge under Article 14, while an example of the latter would be preserving democracy, free speech, and free and fair elections. It is this second limb that the court focuses on in NCT of Delhi judgement.

Without making the theoretical case for democracy, some context of the republican notion of democracy is necessary to appreciate the court’s observations. In a pluralistic society, the spectrum of ideas and needs of the citizenry is immensely wide. However, some amount of convergence or coordination is necessary to decide how society should function. If we acknowledge that all citizens are autonomous moral agents worthy of equal respect, then the decision-making procedure must respect the ideas and needs of all agents equally. Democracy through voting, permits exactly this. In the words of the political philosopher Richard Bellamy, it offers a process that “acknowledges the equal moral right of all citizens to be regarded as autonomous reasoners”. In the NCT of Delhi decision J. Misra espouses exactly this justification for democracy:

The cogent factors for constituting the representative form of government are that all citizens are regarded as equal and the vote of all citizens, which is the source of governing power, is assigned equal weight. In this sense, the views of all citizens carry the same strength and no one can impose his/her views on others” (⁋50)

Similarly, when outlining the underlying principles of the Constitution, J. Chandrachud notes, “One of the essential features of constitutional morality, thus, is the ability and commitment to arrive at decisions on important issues consensually. It requires that “despite all differences we are part of a common deliberative enterprise” (⁋9). It is crucial to understand that arriving at decisions consensually does not necessarily mean everybody agrees with the outcome of the decision, rather that everybody acknowledges the inherent legitimacy of the process used to make the decision. What the court is recognising is that the equal respect for all views grants legitimacy to the decisions taken by democratic means. Irrespective of whether you agree with the decision or not, it is the outcome of a process in which you had as much of a say as the next person (we will examine limits of this later).

A second crucial facet of democracy that the court highlights is political accountability, or how reflexive the State is to the needs of the citizens. J. Chandrachud defines accountability as, “the criterion of responsiveness to changes in circumstances that alter citizen needs and abilities… In other words, accountability refers to the extent to which actual policies and their implementation coincide with a normative ideal in terms of what they ought to be.” (⁋35) If the role of democratic voting is to determine the “needs and abilities” of the citizens in a society at any given time, then there must exist a direct link between those who vote and those frame laws. This accountability allows citizens to inform political representatives of their “needs and abilities” and most importantly, reject those representatives who do not frame laws that track the citizens “needs and abilities”. Obvious examples of this are not re-electing a representative, or at an indirect level, a ‘no-confidence motion’ against the government. But as we shall see, the principle of accountability is far more widespread. As J. Chandrachud notes, “The ability of citizens to participate in the formation of governments and to expect accountable and responsive government constitutes the backbone of a free society.” (⁋11)

The democratic credentials of the council of ministers and the LG

Recall that Article 239AA creates a legislature elected from the territorial constituencies of Delhi, which is led by a council of ministers. By contrast, the LG is appointed by President on the advice of the Central Government. Also recall that the High Court ruled that all initiatives of the Delhi government needed the express approval of the LG. This conclusion of the High Court directly contradicts the view of democracy espoused by the court, as the LG neither represents the “needs and abilities” of the citizens of Delhi, nor is he accountable to these citizens. However, the LG is the appointee of a body that is answerable to the people, the central government. If the power exercised by every appointed official was considered unconstitutional on the ground that they were not elected or directly answerable to the people, the government would come to a halt. The court’s final holding is therefore not that the LG is undemocratic, rather than the council of ministers have stronger democratic credentials which cause power to vest in them.

The court argues that no power under the Constitution is conferred unless it is ultimately accountable to the people. How true this is, given the recent antics by governors is a debate for another day, but the court states,

The omnipotence of the President and of the Governor at State level — is euphemistically inscribed in the pages of our Fundamental Law with the obvious intent that even where express conferment of power or functions is written into the articles, such business has to be disposed of decisively by the Ministry answerable to the Legislature and through it vicariously to the people, thus vindicating our democracy instead of surrendering it to a single summit soul.”

In other words, where constitution vests power in two posts, there exists a presumption in favour of the power ultimately vesting in and being exercised by individuals or offices directly responsible to the citizens. This presumption is based on two parliamentary doctrines that are based on the twin ideas of all voices being heard and political accountability. These are the doctrines of “aid and advice” and “collective” responsibility.

Aid and Advice

The first constitutional doctrine discussed by the court is that of “aid and advice”. The constitution stipulates that the President, Governor, and at the level of the Union Territory, the LG, shall act on the “aid and advice” of their respective council of ministers. The question in NCT of Delhi was whether the “aid and advice” of the Delhi council of ministers was binding on the LG. A detailed discussion on this doctrine can be found in an earlier post on the High Court judgement (here). However, in the context of our current discussion on democracy it is important to understand the role the doctrine plays in a parliamentary democracy.

J. Chandrachud notes, “The doctrine of aid and advice enhances accountability and responsive government – besides representative government – by ensuring that the real authority to take decisions resides in the Council of Ministers, which owes ultimate responsibility to the people, through a legislature to whom the Council is responsible.” (⁋43). To ensure that the unelected official in whom the Constitution appears to vest power (e.g. the President, or the LG) acts in accordance with the “needs and abilities” of the citizens they govern, this unelected official is bound to act in accordance the “aid and advice” of elected individuals. The legitimacy of the “aid and advice” of these elected officials comes from the fact that all citizens had an equal chance to choose these elected officials based on the interests the officials represented. (This raises the question, why have an LG at all? Which I address in the last section of the post.)

Collective Responsibility

Collective responsibility means two things: (1) that every minister in government is responsible for her ministry; and (2) all ministers in parliament are collectively responsible for the policies of the government as a whole (the government here is not the entire legislature, but rather the ruling party or coalition). Thus, each minister is vicariously liable for the actions of all the other ministers in government. The reason why parliamentary democracy requires the principle of collective responsibility is best articulated by J. Chandrachud when he notes, “Collective responsibility governs the democratic process, as it makes a government liable for every act it does.” (⁋37) It makes the government, “continuously accountable for its actions, so that it always faces the possibility that a major mistake may result in a withdrawal of Parliamentary support” (⁋33).

By making the entire government responsible for the act of each minister, collective responsibility greatly enhances the liability of government. A single wayward act of a minister can potentially threaten a government’s rule, prompting a no-confidence motion. This results in both intra-governmental accountability, and accountability to the direct representatives of the citizens. As J. Chandrachud concludes, “Collective responsibility, as a constitutional doctrine, ensures accountability to the sovereign will of the people who elect the members of the legislature.” (⁋50).  Similarly, J. Mishra states, “the ultimate say in all matters shall vest with the representative Government who are responsible to give effect to the wishes of the citizens and effectively address their concerns.” (⁋267)

This highlights the second aspect of democracy discussed above, that of political accountability. It is not sufficient that an office of power is vicariously answerable to the people. Democracy demands a direct nexus between those in power and the citizen’s whose needs and values they represent. The Central Government that appoints the LG represents the needs of the entire country, of which Delhi is a minute fraction. If the constitution demands democratic government for Delhi, it necessarily requires a government that is directly accountable to the citizens of Delhi. The council of ministers possess this accountability, and the LG does not.

The limits of democracy

This post has so far focussed on the ­legitimacy derived from the inputs to the democratic decision-making process. Democracy ensures that all citizens can voice their views equally prior to taking any decision that governs all citizens. However, as has been noted before on this blog (here) we also care about the outcomes of the democratic decision-making process. The discussion for whether democracy needs counter-majoritarian restrains is beyond the scope of this post. However, the NCT of Delhi judgement is notable in delineating the limits of political legitimacy within the constitutional framework.

This conflict is best highlighted by J. Chandrachud when he notes,

The NCT represents the aspirations of the residents of its territory. But it embodies, in its character as a capital city the political symbolism underlying national governance. The circumstances pertaining to the governance of the NCT may have a direct and immediate impact upon the collective welfare of the nation.” (⁋55)

The conflict touched upon by the court is not merely about the distribution of powers between the elected government of Delhi and the Central Government. It is highlighting that for all the political legitimacy that democratic inputs generate, there exist certain areas of debate where the democratic process cannot be allowed to reign supreme. A common example of this is the denial of referendums and even popular government to areas that threaten to separate from the union. The court is alluding to the fact that the entire constitutional scheme is situated in a State-centric view of the world, and where the idea of democracy may be used to question the existence of the state itself, a delicate balance must be struck. J. Chandrachud articulately captures this tension when he notes, “Each of the two principles must be given adequate weight in producing a result which promotes the basic constitutional values of participatory democracy, while at the same time preserving fundamental concerns in the secure governance of the nation.” (⁋55).  Despite Article 239AA granting a democratically elected government to Delhi, Delhi is still of crucial importance to India as a State, practically and symbolically. Thus, there are limits to the legitimacy generated by granting each citizen of Delhi a vote.

Conclusion

Earlier we noted that ensuring the voice of all citizens influences the government’s decisions, and the government is accountable to this influence, is a crucial method of restraining governmental power. Thus, the decision in NCT of Delhi should be considered on par with any landmark fundamental rights case in terms of securing freedom. By highlighting democracy as an underlying principle of the constitution and utilising it to interpret a provision that enabled representative governance, the court has restrained the ability of the government (in this case the Central Government) to disregard the “needs and abilities” of the people. How the principles of the equality that voting is founded on and accountability that parliamentary processes create will influence future decisions of the court will be interesting to see. For example, would the anti-defection law survive a basic structure challenge based on the principles articulated here? More realistically, one hopes that in future cases of electoral reforms/restrictions, campaign finance and parliamentary affairs, the court does not forget these principles.